Maxims for writers
NOTE: Fans of Niven and Heinlein will recognize the fingerprints of those two fine masters here.
In no particular order . . . .
There is writing for readers, and there is writing for other writers, and there is writing for critics. I strongly advise the first, and I also strongly advise against the second and third. Why? Because other writers are not the audience. Critics are also not the audience. This is sometimes difficult to discern in a very-small genre like Science Fiction, where the lines between authors and fans, authors and critics, fans and critics, etc., are extremely blurry. So many authors get themselves tied up in knots worrying about what has gone before. They will launch themselves into ever more esoteric experiments with style and subject, trying to “innovate” for the sake of jaded eyes, while losing the entire point: that each new generation of readers comes fresh to the table, and for each clean plate, you have the opportunity to be that reader’s favorite entrée. It won’t matter to them how innovative you are. They’ll only care that you enthralled them with a good story.
Respect the dignity of the audience. If someone has put her dinero on the check-out counter for one of your books, she has done you a tremendous favor — she is literally betting that you’re going to give her her money’s worth. In our era of one-thousand-and-one competing entertainments, it’s a remarkable thing that anybody still reads stories for pleasure. This is a transaction. As an author, you started out as a reader too. Think of how you felt — how you still feel — when you spend money on somebody else’s stories. Picture yourself on the other side of the equation. Remember the promise that you’re making when you put a book or story out into the world. Each and every person who spends time and cash on your daydreams, deserves your consideration for having done this.
Corollary: you won’t be able to please all comers. But for goodness sake, if you’ve obviously missed the mark, don’t treat the customers like there is something wrong with them — either singly, or collectively. Be gracious. Thank them for devoting time and money to your work, even if they didn’t come away satisfied. Politely encourage them to give you another try in the future, even if their first foray didn’t pan out. Perhaps even apologize for the fact that they didn’t walk away with a good experience, and ask for leniency. Be a good sport about it. Don’t let your ego do the talking. Arguing with the audience will not convince them that they’ve had a better experience with your work, it will merely convince them that you aren’t worth their time in the future. Likewise, mocking the audience will not convince them that they’ve had a better experience with your work, it will merely convince them that you’re a dick.
The word “Author” is a verb, as well as a noun. Many people who say they want to be writers, actually want to have written. Many people who flock to writing workshops and writing track panels at conventions, aren’t in love with telling stories — they’re in love with the celebrity status they believe storytelling can bring them. There are far, far easier ways to become famous. Likewise, merely having published some stuff doesn’t make you an active player in the marketplace. Writers write. Authors publish. In the era of indie, there’s really no reason why completed books and stories can’t be put out for public purchase. Which is no guarantee, mind you. As Kevin J. Anderson says, publishing is now easy, but success is still as hard as it’s ever been. So focus on doing. Fresh stories and books. Each year. New stuff. Not everything is going to be magic. But don’t use that as an excuse to rest on your laurels. Anticipate the coming work. Savor the chance to start anew. As actor Geoffrey Lewis said, “The best one is the next one.”
Work ethic trumps talent. Right now, there are countless people in the business who have superior innate ability — compared to yourself — but no one will ever know who they are, because they can’t find the discipline to put in the hours. This is true in many other professions, but it’s particularly true in publishing. Because authors (as a class of creative artist) are notoriously lazy. Dare I even say that most people get into writing because real work demands too much of them? They discover joy in spinning their first stories, and believe that this will translate into everlasting buoyancy (for the project) across a career. It won’t, of course. Most people burn out quick. So then it’s a matter of drive — what do you have inside you that pushes you forward each day? Look at any author making real money, consistently, and you will generally find someone who has managed to compensate for and overcome the natural inertia of inactivity — the empty chair doesn’t stay empty for long.
You will never lack for advice. In addition to being notoriously lazy, writers are also notoriously great at giving advice. Even this column is an example. You will discover that a lot of advice is in contradiction with a lot of other advice. This is because writing is not a science. What works for one author trying to tell one particular style of story, won’t work for a different author, trying to tell a different style of story. Some authors — having published a few things — go into the business of peddling themselves as gurus. Workshops aplenty beg for your dollars. Because not all advice is created equally, consider the source. Look at who is lecturing, or instructing, and ask yourself, “Does this person have the kind of career I want to have, writing the kinds of books and stories I want to write?” What works for someone achieving literary acclaim in The New Yorker won’t work for someone who wants to write technothrillers in the style of Tom Clancy. Ultimately, don’t be so much of a slave to somebody else’s system, that you pursue it at the expense of your sanity. If you keep going long enough, you will develop processes, a style, and a voice, that are unique to you. In the immortal words of Egg Shen, “We take what we want, and leave the rest! Just like your salad bar.”
Don’t be a sniper. The world of authors is artistic and competitive — a potentially noxious combination. Because everybody’s taste is different, and the success of one author may seem disproportionate to the success of another; despite both of them writing seemingly the same stuff for the same slice of the market. It’s a rather chaotic and uneven playing field, and it will always be this way. Because you can’t wag the dog. You can’t manufacture sales, nor critical praise. One book series hits it big, while three dozen similar series, do so-so, or even flounder. You — as the author — don’t have much control over any of this. And you certainly can’t control outcomes for other people. Don’t get baited into comparing yourself to your peers. Not even if they themselves do so on a regular basis. Jealousy is pure poison. Covetousness can ruin relationships, and it never negatively affects the target of your resentment nearly as much as it negatively affects you. So you have to create a quiet space in your mind and in your heart — like a zen garden. That’s where you work. That’s where you make your own definition for success. Not according to what somebody else says, or is doing. But according to what you want to say and do. Other people will succeed or fail, according to their own metrics. Some writers go into the business of being critics, because they think they know better. Author-critics tend to be some of the worst snipers of all. I’ve never seen a single author-critic who enjoyed even a tenth of the fame — or fortune — as some of the authors who clearly love to tell stories, and who don’t care what anyone else thinks.
Know the difference between a dream, and a goal. This can be confusing, because many times the language of the advice being given, conflates them. A goal is something that is measurable and achievable according to X amount of work applied over Y amount of hours. In other words, a set number of words each day, or pages each day, or so many chapters a week, or a month, or two completed books a year, a dozen completed pieces of short fiction every year, and so on and so forth. You know your schedule, and you know yourself. You know what you can accomplish, or maintain, as far as production is concerned. The end result of your production will tell you if you’ve met your goal(s) or not. A dream? A dream is hitting the New York Times bestseller list, or getting to have a six-figure advance for a new book, or having a book turned into a blockbuster movie. You can certainly work with a dream in mind — for inspiration. But confusing inspiration, with what is actually achievable according to factors under your own control, can lead to severe heartbreak. Bitterness. A sense that you were meant for certain things, but you’ve somehow been denied. And that’s not how you want to be spending your quiet time: pondering the ways in which your career has fallen short, because you mistook a goal for a dream.
Corollary: regularly hitting or exceeding goals, increases the chance you will see a dream come true. Remember what Obi Wan said? In his experience there’s no such thing as luck? Well, the funny thing about life — in publishing, and just about any other endeavor — is that hard work forges its own kind of magic. Some writers want to write one book, or one story, or one series, and experience the lightning strike. They want to be J.K. Rowling. The odds are a million to one against it. But the odds get better, the more you produce. It’s a bit like drilling for oil once, and only once. You may or may not hit anything. So you walk away empty-handed . . . or you stake out a new spot, begin drilling again, and then stake out another spot and drill once more, and so on, and so forth, and you keep doing this. Over years. Decades? Drill a hundred times, in a hundred different places, and the odds of hitting oil are far, far superior; to merely drilling a few times. Each new book, or story, or series, is another metal rod erected under the thunderclouds. Populate an entire field with such rods, all at various heights, and you’re upping your chances dramatically — for achieving that coveted lightning strike.
Corollary to the corollary: doing nothing is a great way to accomplish nothing. Let’s face it. A lot of people who talk big, are just blowing hot air. They’ve got grand plans and designs, but they somehow never get around to implementing any of them. Life gets in the way. Stuff happens. They get derailed for a few days, which turn into a few weeks, which turn into a few months, then a few years . . . this is actually where 99% of all writing (aspirant or otherwise) careers die. Remember what I said, about author being a verb, as well as a noun? Not every author produces the same amount in the same period of time. That’s a ratio you will have to figure out on your own. But zero over any number, is still zero. Unless you can take your plans and put them into action on a regular basis, you won’t get anywhere. Whatever upward inertia you may have built — with past actions — will bleed off quickly under the gravity of idleness. And no, going to conferences or workshops does not necessarily qualify as taking action. A conference or a workshop is a tool; it’s supposed to help your future actions be more effective. But these things do not replace the work proper.